It is beyond disheartening to find yet another legislative audit report pointing to troubles in a state-run program, this time the medical marijuana operation. The audit found a troubling lack of controls in what should be considered key areas. First, the program failed to perform ongoing verification on the licenses and eligibility of new patients’ doctors. That’s a fundamental responsibility of the state, and it’s critical to instilling confidence in those who use medical marijuana and those who authorize it.
A second area involves tracking and testing the drug before it’s sold. Quality assurance should be a distinguishing factor that makes medical cannabis preferable to the illegal, medically questionable, but still often cheaper, street variety.
In their report, the Office of the Legislative Auditor wrote that the Health Department’s internal controls “were generally not adequate to safeguard financial assets and ensure compliance with selected legal requirements for the medical cannabis program.”
Five years after the state program was created, it continues to struggle with the basics. The audit found a lack of binding contracts for labs testing cannabis, insufficient controls to track “lost” product, and poor record-keeping for eligibility for minors.
“Internal controls are particularly important for the state’s medical cannabis program due to the federal classification of marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance and the risk of its diversion for unauthorized purposes,” the report said.
On paper, at least, Minnesota has one of the stricter programs among the 33 states that offer medical cannabis. Only pill or liquid form is allowed. Smoking cannabis in plant form remains illegal. There are only two manufacturers and eight licensed dispensaries in the state. And there are just a little over 1,600 providers who can refer patients to the program. Some patients have dropped out because of the product’s cost and difficulty in obtaining it. And yet, auditors found sloppy record-keeping, poor controls and too little oversight.
Thankfully, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm appears to have taken the audit seriously. She’s acknowledged the issues and started making changes. But more must be done. Malcolm has said the state will need a centralized system to track medical cannabis from the greenhouses that grow it to the dispensaries that sell it, with strict controls to ensure quality testing and detection of lost product — all of which will require state funding.
Lawmakers should look seriously at that request this legislative session. The 2015 decision to authorize medical cannabis — even on a limited basis — was the right one. It has brought relief to thousands of patients unable to find it through more conventional means. But this a serious drug, and it should undergo the same rigorous testing and controls applied to other pharmaceuticals.
As Minnesotans are asked to think about even broader use, through the statewide legalization of recreational marijuana, it might be good to first nail down the complexities of a program that serves fewer than 19,000 patients.